Michelle Ann Kratts

“Find Me Buried, Living-Dead”

In World War II on February 2, 2014 at 9:41 pm

The Story of Herman Walter Prawdzik

(1926-1944)

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WHEN I’M KILLED

by ROBERT GRAVES, 1918

When I’m killed, don’t think of me buried there in Cambrin Wood, nor as in Zion think of me with the Intolerable Good. And there’s one thing that I know well, I’m damned if I’ll be damned to Hell!

So when I’m killed, don’t wait for me, walking the dim corridor; In Heaven or Hell, don’t wait for me, or you must wait for evermore. You’ll find me buried, living-dead In these verses that you’ve read.

So when I’m killed, don’t mourn for me, shot, poor lad, so bold and young, killed and gone—don’t mourn for me. On your lips my life is hung: O friends and lovers, you can save your playfellow from the grave.

There are those among us who never die.  We call them heroes.  Even as their deaths are often violent and swift, they walk away unscathed.  Because, first and foremost, they have no time for Death.  They have a sacred duty.  They wait in the shadows for the sound of trumpets and battle.  They listen for the first note of a woman’s tears, a child’s pain.  They know when we are afraid to go on into those dark woods alone and they take our hands.  They lead us through the strangest nights.  And then they disappear.

Such is the story of the life and death of Herman Walter Prawdzik.  Although his life was taken on December 21, 1944, in Bastogne, Belgium, he has never truly gone away.  His family is sure of that.  He is always there for them in their moments of need.  They have seen his tombstone among the rows of crosses in the Luxembourg American Cemetery.  They have visited his new address:  Plot:  E, Row: 8, Grave: 11.   They have left mementoes behind.  But it is inevitable that “Walter” (as he was known) visits them, as well.

The visitations began for Helen, Walter’s niece, before a terrible accident in which she almost lost her life.  It was a stormy night and she was waiting for her husband to get into the car.  It was then that she heard a phantom man’s voice giving her specific instructions, which she followed out of fear.   “Take off your seatbelt, take off your jewelry, put your wallet and valuables in the glove compartment.”  And above all he told her to “stay conscious.”  Ironically, all of the directions he had given her moments before the accident saved her life.  Because she had been out of her seatbelt, her husband’s head fell perfectly into her lap and his life was spared.  The accident occurred after her husband had had a heart attack while driving and they landed in water.  All of her things would have been lost if she had not put them in the glove compartment.  At the time she did not know it was Walter as she had not seen him.  It was only a voice.   However, she mentioned this to a cousin (whom she believes is clairvoyant) and it was this cousin who imparted that yes, this was Walter—for Walter had also visited her.

The Walter visitations continued.  Helen’s husband, who had a serious brain injury following the accident, slowly worsened and was eventually diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.  There were times that he was violent with Helen.  But Walter would protect her.  Now she knew it was Walter.  The room would grow cold, time would stop.  Everything would become deadly quiet.  And then the violence would cease.  Her husband would put his hands down, sit down and just stare—as if he were in a trance.  Helen began to see Walter at times.  He would stand alone in a hallway.  Sometimes she would run into him.  He was always young.  Always in his uniform.  And then there were her dreams.

Helen was only around two years old when Walter was killed.  She barely remembers him except for certain things…like his voice.  He had only recently signed up with the 506th Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, U. S. Army.  There was not much time left.  Every moment was a countdown.  She has a special timeline, scribbled onto scrap paper.  Glancing through her notes and memorabilia, one would never guess that this was such an important piece of paper.  Like a laundry list, world events and events from Walter’s life converge:  birth date (February 2, 1926) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; worked for Sears Roebuck and Company (Philadelphia Mail Order Division); Enlistment ( 8 March 1944, New Cumberland, PA);  June 6, 1944, D-Day;  June 19, 1944, Camp Wheeler, GA; September 17, 1944, Market Garden, Netherlands;  September 17, Fort Benning, GA; Overseas in October (to England) 1944; pushed towards Bastogne and Ardennes; November 17-France—letter; End of November 1944, Mourmelon, France, received replacements; December 18—start of Bastogne (left Mourmelon);  December 21; December 26, End of Siege.  This scrap of paper is the story of the end of a young man’s life.  And the beginning of something else.

Walter  knew loneliness and pain.  His youth was quite tragic and unforgiving– not unlike the stuff of fairytales.  His choice to join one of the most dangerous branches of the service reveals his final desperation.  Following the early death of his beloved mother, he found himself at the mercy of a wretched and miserable step-mother.  Most of the older children were sent off but the younger children were made to suffer the most.  The new Mrs. Prawdzik was cruel and unfair.  Once his sister, Helen’s mother, married, she and her new husband invited Walter to live with them.  He refused their kind offer, mentioning that it was time he take care of himself.  He heard Destiny calling his name and he followed.

Walter’s end was brutal.  Although the Army insisted “his death was instantaneous and he suffered no pain,” that is hard to believe.  I imagine that line is in all of the black trimmed letters home.  But much has been written about the part played by 101st Airborne’s during the Battle for Bastogne.  The mission called for the men to be parachuted from C-17 Transport airplanes over hostile territory and then quickly embedded.  Walter’s unit was sent to Bastogne, to map out German movement.  However the Americans did not realize that German Panzer tanks were steadily moving through Bastogne on their way to overtake Antwerp.  In fact, the first wave of the Battle of the Bulge was initiated at this very moment as the German tanks attacked the 101st Airborne on December 21, 1944.   It was on this day that Private Herman Walter Prawdzik was killed by a mortar shell.

Many men died that day.  He was not the only casualty. It is said that around 2,000 Americans with the 101st died during the Siege of Bastogne, which lasted from December 20th to December 27th.  That same week, across the ocean, Americans were celebrating Christmas, trimming the tree, singing Christmas carols, praying in their churches for an end to the war.  Perhaps there were wives who felt a sharp pain at a certain moment, mothers who felt a flush, fathers who felt a terrible sickness overcome them.  They all waited for those horrible messengers to arrive.

One of the last letters that Walter sent home was dated November 17, 1944.  Writing to his sister-in-law, Kitty, Walter said that he was in France, in a base camp, preparing for his outfit.  He was not allowed to say much about his work (apparently Kitty had asked in a previous letter).  He merely mentioned that there wasn’t “much to write about.”  He told her to take care of herself and kindly gave his regards to the family…”your brother in law, Walter….”  This was the end.

But is it really?  Of course, we all die.  Some of us are forgotten.  Walter was never forgotten.  Perusing a pile of emails and family letters, Walter left a lasting impression on all who knew him.  He left his young nephews his bike when he left for the Army.  One of the girls fondly remembers him placing her on his shoulders.  “Strangely enough,” she remarks, “the only thing I remember him saying is that he will take care of the little ones.”  I think the most beautiful memory is a memory that one of Walter’s sisters held sacred.  The last time “he left the house on Cornwall Street” he walked to the end of the block waving the entire time “until he turned the corner.”  She went on to add that “he waved like he knew he was not coming home…it is our duty to keep his memory alive.”

And the family has certainly kept his memory alive.  Because some very special people never actually die.  Do they?

 

 

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